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Shop Class Was Never Like This

The airplane builders of Mundelein High.

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LATE IN THE SUMMER OF 1999, two enormous wooden crates arrived at Mundelein High School, in the northern suburbs of Chicago. Inside were 30 blueprints, three thick instruction books, and the makings of a composite-material, high-speed, four-seat  monoplane. Soon after, another box arrived, this one containing a 325-horsepower Continental IO-550-N engine, assembled but lacking fuel, throttle, propeller, and instrument connections.

Last December, roughly 3,000 labor-hours later, senior Sayre Kos was crouched in the cargo bay of what had become the fuselage of a Super Lancair ES. Kos was contemplating the placement of the master solenoid hatch cover. The top of the fuselage was off, and Kos’ teacher, Jim Jackson, was peeking in over the side and asking Kos to consider where the solenoid wires were going after they left the switch box. Those thick volumes of instructions showed the theoretical circuit but not the actual path.

Already the roughed-in cockpit was sprouting a dense undergrowth of cables and wires. To get through that tangle, Jackson explained, you wanted the solenoid wiring to have the fewest kinks and the straightest path possible without getting in harm’s way. Kos, who’d spent most of a week building the fiberglass hatch cover, now had to make sure that its placement wouldn’t interfere with the solenoid’s exit hole so that in the afternoon class of Aviation Technology, another student could pick up the next stage of the cable’s journey unimpeded.

Kos moved the cover around until he was satisfied there was room. He marked the mounting points. “That looks good, Mr. Jackson,” he said.

“No, it looks professional,” said Mr. Jackson.

Since 1980, Jackson’s Aviation Technology classes—the “Mundelein High School Airplane Factory,” as he and his students call it—have put together five commercial build-your-own-airplane kits. The buyers of the airplanes are private sponsors who have put up the cash for the kits; in return, they get a handmade aircraft without having to pay any labor costs.

The sponsors must sign off on all liability. But the Mundelein airplanes do come with a guarantee of sorts: Mr. Jackson. Even though the building is done by students, “you know he’s in there at night working his tail off to make sure everything was done right,” says Kos.

Getting high school students to work is a bit like herding cats. Last December I watched as Jackson somehow got 16 of them to slowly wake up, listen to a short lesson on welding, and then declare their targets for the day’s shop time. “Any questions?” he asked. “Okay, let’s get to work.” The students headed out into the shop, which rapidly filled with the sounds of sawing, grinding, and hammering. Jackson dispensed tools, advice, and the occasional mild caution.

The Super Lancair ES was to be the last Mundelein airplane for Jackson, who retired at Christmas. But it will not be the last Mundelein airplane. A teacher named Cory Owens has since taken over the school’s aviation program, having satisfied the school board’s daunting Vacancy Notice requirements: an Illinois teaching credential, plus a private pilot’s license and/or an airframe-and-powerplant mechanic certificate from the Federal Aviation Administration.

The airplane assembly classes are part of the school’s Industry and Technology vocational program; students can take the courses to prepare for careers as aircraft mechanics. That’s a smart choice these days. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics expects the supply of aircraft mechanics and avionics technicians to tighten over the next 10 years as fewer candidates are produced by the military and a wave of Baby Boomer retirements sweeps through the U.S. aviation industry. The Aviation Technician Education Council, a coalition of trade schools that train aviation maintenance technicians (AMTs), goes further, saying that there is already a shortage of young AMTs training for entry-level positions. The big airlines will probably do all right, says council vice president Richard Dumarescq, because they pay top dollar, but regional airlines and general aviation businesses could be facing a crisis in five to seven years, when so many AMTs now in their 50s start to retire.

Before taking Jackson’s course, Robert Hanrahan says he had “absolutely no idea of the possibilities in the aviation industry whatsoever.” He  recalls: “I’d heard about the program from some of my friends, but I thought maybe they were building model airplanes or something. I had no idea they were building a real one. One day though I’m walking by and I go, ‘Whoa, there’s an airplane in there.’ After that, I had to check it out.” (It’s not an uncommon story. Says Brian Thatcher, head of the school’s guidance department, “Jim has taken a passion of his own and turned it into a course that pulled in all sorts of students over the years.”)

In Jackson’s class, Hanrahan worked on the Super Lancair ES, helping install the engine mounts on the firewall and then mate the Continental engine to the airframe. He eventually was bitten deep by the airplane bug. In the spring of his senior year, he took flying lessons and got his private pilot’s license. He hopes to get his instrument rating this summer. Though he is now majoring in pre-law at Michigan State University in East Lansing, he says: “In ten years I hope to be in the first chair of a 737 or 757. If I can find a triple seven [777], I’ll be there.”

Senior Maggie Olczyk also fell under the aviation spell while working on the Super Lancair ES. She ended up taking flying lessons and applying to Embry-Riddle Aeronautical College in Daytona Beach, Florida.

Both Olczyk and Hanrahan look forward to the first flight of the Super Lancair ES so they can take part in a Jackson tradition: Whenever an aircraft is completed, Jackson serves as the test pilot, and the first passengers are students who worked on the project in class, earned at least a C, and went on to train for an aviation career.

“I can’t wait,” says Olczyk. “I’m just waiting for the phone call from Mr. Jackson. My friend and I worked on that part where you put your foot to climb into the plane. We did most of that, so if anything happens, they’ll know who did it.”

Jackson’s campaign to introduce students to aviation has extended beyond shop work. As part of Young Eagle Days, a program that the Experimental Aircraft Association runs to encourage kids to try flying, Jackson would offer all his students, regardless of their career goals, a ride in a rented Cessna. Students vividly remember swooping down on Mundelein. Says one: “To see your own town from the seat of a small airplane—I mean, it’s something you never forget.”

To help broaden their perspectives, Jackson would bring a few students to the annual EAA fly-ins at Oshkosh, Wisconsin, to participate in exhibits on the Mundelein program. And each summer he took students on a fishing trip to a remote lodge in northern Ontario, where they’d go on short flights in one of the Mundelein airplanes. “My focus here has been to get young people to get away from Mundelein and see the world,” Jackson says. “Some of these kids have never flown. Some of them have never been to Chicago.… I try to open their eyes a little.”

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